Monday, October 12, 2015

The Book I Read: Going Into The City by Robert Christgau

Going Into The City is Robert Christgau’s memoir of a post-World War II New York childhood and decades as a rock critic. The book is full of a hungry, scattershot energy that anyone who has spent even a short time in New York can’t help but recognize. It is also a book that could have been written for me, and if I’d read it at 22 instead of 42 I wonder if it might have changed the direction of my life. Born in 1942, Christgau was- and is - a voracious reader. He describes a fast journey from Dick and Jane to reading Book-of-the-Month Club fare (Kon-Tiki) by age nine. As a young reader I shared Christgau’s velocity but mostly lacked his ambition, though I do remember putting away 1984 in fifth grade (the year of the title, it was in the air) and also an infatuation with The Making of the President books a little later. I was notorious for rushing through assignments so that I could read, a habit that was greeted with mostly good-natured chagrin by my teachers. In the same 5th grade year the only thing that could interrupt my extra reading was a trip to the school library, where a primitive “computer lab” allowed me to play state capital games and write programs in BASIC.

Christgau went to college at Dartmouth and began to discover a few things about himself that would define the rest of his life. Again, I relate. There’s a reoccurring attraction to smart women that would continue right up through his (still extant) marriage. The joys and trials of both Christgau’s marriage and his previous long relationship with the critic Ellen Willis are described in great detail, with evaluations of sexual taste and ability (including his own) made as perhaps only someone who came of age in the 1960’s could pull off. More germane to Christgau’s writing career is the idea of “contingency”, an idea he discusses at length that seems to have come from the waning of his Christianity and a liberal arts-fed dislike for “-isms” of any kind. Christgau’s contingency becomes clearer as he arrives in New York and finds work as a journalist: a distaste of elitism and theory, a healthy populism, and a lack of interest in labels are all a part of the superstructure that Christgau outlines. I wrote too serious movie reviews in college before I’d read much or any Sarris, but the auteur theory never made much sense to me. Kael all the way, though for a time in my 20s I did sit through too many bad action movies in the hope that something profound about the director would reveal itself to me.

The purpose of these few words isn’t to draw parallels between my life and that of Robert Christgau, nor is it to suggest that my nonprofessional writing in any way approaches the skill or insight of the “Dean of American Rock Critics”. (Christgau has been published in many outlets but is most closely identified with The Village Voice.) Rather, it’s to express my pleasure at finding connection in a book that evokes what it was like to have a press pass in New York City of the 1960’s and ‘70s. Christgau saw and listened to music constantly of course; the book is full of thoughts on pop, rock, jazz, disco, rap, and the “alternative” rock of the ‘80s and beyond. But there were also film and theatre, and outsized personalities like Patti Smith and David Johansen. Christgau’s enthusiasm for art bubbles over these pages; he stops the narrative of his life for mini-essays on personally meaningful works from Crime and Punishment to Jules and Jim to Sister Carrie. I’ll spare you what my list would include, but the exhilaration on display in Christgau’s writing about these favorites is irresistible to anyone of a similar mind.

Christgau’s central metaphor is, of course, “The City”. Christgau grew up in Queens, and his Manhattan is both the center of the world and the home of frontiers both personal and creative. I don’t have the same connection to New York, but in my desire to describe art on paper I am part of a great tradition.

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